Collective intentionality, large-group collaboration and embodied we-feeling

Talk by Prof. Dr. Marc Slors, Philosophy of mind and cognition, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, Radboud University.


Collective intentionality is influentially employed to explain the emergence of large-scale collaboration by Tomasello and his followers. In this talk, I will criticize this explanation and draw some philosophical conclusions from this critique. Crudely put, Tomasello considers the adoption of norms, conventions, and institutions to be motivated by the shared belief that these are beneficial to the group’s thriving and survival. I will argue that in the case of societies larger than hunter-gatherer groups, this collective version of Humean belief-desire psychology is an implausible overintellectualization, as the required global group-level motivations are much too complex to entertain. As an alternative, I propose to explain at least very many norms, conventions and institutions in terms of psychological tendencies – such as strong reciprocity, basic trust, and over-imitation – that are the product of group-level natural and cultural selection. In this alternative explanation, large-scale collaboration is the product of local concerns on the one hand, and norms, conventions and even institutions that are grounded in collective embodied habits on the other. I will highlight two philosophical consequences of this view: (i) collective intentionality is a description of the resulting large-scale collaboration rather than an explanation of it, and (ii) the we-feeling of large-scale groups can best be understood in terms of feeling at home in one’s cultural niche.